PFW's 2018 NFC breakout players on offense

Young NFC playmakers on offense, like 49ers' McKinnon, poised to make mark in 2018

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Often overlooked in the offseason NFL discussion is the difference young players can make improving from one season to the next. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are two great examples of big-name breakout players who helped their teams to success last season, but you can’t forget about the lesser-named standouts such as Kevin Byard, Yannick Ngakoue and Deion Jones who also elevated their games by leaps and bounds.

With those types of players in mind, here's a look at the 2018 NFC breakout players on defense as chosen by the contributors for the Pro Football Weekly Preview Magazine, which is available now on newsstands.

Philadelphia Eagles: WR Mack Hollins — The speedy Hollins reunites with ex-North Carolina WR coach Gunter Brewer, who oversaw Hollins' record-breaking Tar Heel career before arriving in Philly this offseason. That hardly makes Hollins' breakout a shoo-in (see: Jones, Zay and McGeoghan, Phil in Buffalo). But there wasn't a more resourceful, diverse offense than Philly's last season, and though Hollins is looking up at the durable but declining Mike Wallace on the depth chart, his speed (14.1 YPC as a rookie, only a hair below Wallace in 2017) and special-teams prowess should continue endearing him with Doug Pederson and Co.

Dallas Cowboys: TE Blake Jarwin — Hey, someone has to emerge at the TE position, right? Why not Jarwin, who offers perhaps the most flexible combo of blocking and receiving ability in an anonymous group without Jason Witten? Jarwin, 23, was an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State last year and, unlike rookie Dalton Schultz, is already versed in Scott Linehan's offense.

Washington: WR Josh Doctson — The 2016 first-rounder led Washington with six receiving touchdowns in his second season, when he averaged 14.3 yards per catch and flashed unique high-pointing ability, after a virtual washout rookie campaign. Perhaps most importantly: Doctson appeared in all 16 games (14 starts) after soft-issue injuries plagued his NFL start. How quickly he clicks with Alex Smith, who'll have to show a willingness to throw his most physical receiver open and let him win on contested catches, could be the biggest key to Washington's passing game.

New York Giants: WR Sterling Shepard — Unlike Doctson, Shepard came on like gangbusters as a 2016 rookie with eight touchdowns, prior to an injury-marred sophomore campaign. Although not as gifted as Doctson physically, Shepard is a technician from the slot who works all parts of the field with ease. In the middle of what could be as explosive a skill group as any in football, Shepard should be the beneficiary of a lot of favorable coverage and, if Adam Thielen's role last season (91-1,276-4 on 142 targets) in new Giants coach Pat Shurmur's offense is any indication, a boatload of opportunities.

Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook — He had a 25-touch, 137-total yard outburst in his first NFL appearance and a 32-touch, 169-total yard encore two weeks later. Sadly, that was Cook's last full game as a rookie before tearing his left ACL. Fortunately his recovery has gone according to plan and Cook could return to the same workhorse role he vacated but a new quarterback in Kirk Cousins whose affinity for finding his playmaking receiving back, Chris Thompson, served as a revelation a year ago.

Green Bay Packers: RB Aaron Jones — Although the Packers could be headed for a running back-by-committee approach, the UTEP product did his part as a fifth-round rookie to show Mike McCarthy that Green Bay's RB stable hasn't had a runner with more juice in the coach's tenure. Jones must prove he can stay on the field, after his electric NFL introduction was stymied by a knee issue, and hold up on passing downs. But Ty Montgomery hasn't shown he can hold up, period, and Jamaal Williams, albeit also a bona fide breakout candidate, can't match Jones' dynamism.

Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay — Our Lions correspondent Nate Atkins chose Ameer Abdullah, but we're rolling with Golladay because his situation crystalized this offseason with the departure of Eric Ebron, while Abdullah's became further clouded with the arrivals of LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson. The field-stretching Northern Illinois product managed 477 yards and three touchdowns on 48 targets as a rookie; Ebron finished with 574 and four on 86 opportunities. One year after Marvin Jones' first 1,000-yard season, Golladay could offer Stafford a more rounded big-play threat capable of maximizing the expected run-game improvements.

Chicago Bears: QB Mitch Trubisky — You've heard it by now: Entering Year 2, Trubisky is a prime candidate to be this year's Jared Goff, the NFL's Most Improved Player as a sophomore last season. Here's the thing: Trubisky provided more reasons than Goff as a rookie to be encouraged, including a much lower interception rate (2.1 vs. 3.4) and higher completion percentage (59.4 vs. 54.6), and received even more tantalizing support than the coaching and talent influx that preceded Goff's and the Rams transformation.

New Orleans Saints: WR Cameron Meredith — Sure there are a lot of mouths to feed here and Meredith is trying to come back from a devastating knee injury suffered last summer. But the Saints don't poach the restricted free agent from Chicago with nearly $5.5 million guaranteed without big ambitions for Meredith, who had 888 receiving yards two seasons ago, when he showed immense growth and versatility in a woeful Bears offense. Penciled in the slot between Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn to patrol the same intermediate area defenses must protect from Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, Meredith couldn't have found a better situation.

Atlanta Falcons: TE Austin Hooper — Atlanta, like New Orleans, doesn't long for much as far as skill talent on offense. Still, after doubling his receiving output from his first to second season, Hooper could take another important step, especially when Matt Ryan seeks an Alabama getaway from Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Mohamed Sanu has become an important cog for the Falcons, but Hooper can provide a similar chain-moving, red-zone threatening presence in an offense that finished 13th on third downs and 9th inside the oppositions' 20 last season.

Carolina Panthers: WR Curtis Samuel — Remember what Norv Turner did with Cordarrelle Patterson early on in the ex-Viking first-rounder's career? Patterson averaged 11.3 yards per touch on offense and tallied nine touchdowns from scrimmage prior to landing in the doghouse for fumbling and a failure to grasp the playbook. Samuel might have a different body type, but he has similar versatility and game-breaking upside. Carolina's speed deficiency won't be solved by D.J. Moore alone; Samuel, if he can make a full recovery from offseason ankle surgery, should find an important role.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE O.J. Howard — The NFC South is an embarrassment of playmaking riches on offense, and Tampa Bay is no exception. We could also envision Chris Godwin exploding on the heels of his strong rookie finish, but Howard, drafted one round before Godwin last season, also finished strong with a touchdown or at least 52 receiving yards in three of his final five rookie games. Tampa Bay gave Cameron Brate a curious contract this offseason, but there's no doubt which is the the most dynamic tight end on the roster.

Los Angeles Rams: WR Cooper Kupp — Kupp led the Rams in receiving with 869 yards, which was second only to JuJu Smith-Schuster among NFL rookies last season. We're tempted, then, to replace him with Josh Reynolds, who could take over for Sammy Watkins as the team's primary red-zone receiver. But Brandin Cooks' arrival likely relegates Reynolds merely to a part-time role, whereas Kupp appears entrenched in the slot. He's such an advanced receiver for a second-year player coming from Eastern Washington that we can't help but to think Kupp cleans up a few of the inopportune rookie drops and crosses the 1,000-yard threshold this season.

San Francisco 49ers: RB Jerick McKinnon — Trivia question: How many NFL backs without so much as a 600-yard rushing season to their name boast contracts totaling $30 million? Not only is McKinnon alone in that category, he trails only Pro Bowlers LeSean McCoy and Devonta Freeman for the largest vet RB deal in football. Still only 26, is McKinnon's rather barren résumé a reflection of his talent or previous circumstances? We're definitely going with the latter, and his pairing with Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan makes McKinnon a threat to be Shanahan's new Freeman.

Seattle Seahawks: WR Amara Darboh — Our Seahawks writer (and one of my favorite uncles) Dan Arkush chose Chris Carson here, and although I love Carson's game, the guy he now looks up at on the depth chart, Rashaad Penny, might have been my favorite back in this year's draft class. Thus, Darboh is my pick. Seattle's third-rounder a year ago, before Jimmy Graham caught double-digit touchdowns and Paul Richardson became a full-time starter for the first time, he now could step into a starting role alongside Doug Baldwin. And Darboh brings size that could make him a natural Graham replacement by the goal line.

Arizona Cardinals: TE Ricky Seals-Jones — His late UDFA season surge included explosive catches in four consecutive games, including three touchdowns over that span. Seals-Jones (6-foot-5, 243 pounds) has earned a ton of praise from a new coaching staff this offseason, too, when Arizona replaced John and Jaron Brown with only RSJ's former Aggies teammate, Christian Kirk. He's not a threat to RSJ's work, and TE1 Jermaine Gresham might not be for some time either after rupturing his Achilles in the regular-season finale. Sam Bradford loves targeting his tight ends, and — rookie QB cliché alert — an inviting TE target like RSJ could quickly become Josh Rosen's best friend.

Pro Football Weekly